TWA 800: My Improbable Lunch with the Chairman of the NTSB

If you had told me on the morning of July 7 that I would have lunch on July 8 with the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I would have likely countered with tales of flying pigs or Hamlet-writing monkeys.

I knew the odds.  In 2013-14, the TWA 800 Project Team made a systematic attempt to get the NTSB to reopen the investigation into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.  The Project Team included high-level whistleblowers, family members of the victims, and eyewitnesses.  Collectively, team members had a whole lot more juice than I did, but for all their good efforts, they never got past the NTSB's designated flak catchers.

So color me thunderstruck to find myself dining at Harry's Smokehouse Burgers & BBQ in the Pentagon Mall with former board member Vernon Grose and current chairman of the five-member board Chris Hart.

Grose made this all happen.  A day earlier, he had attended a press conference on TWA Flight 800 held at the National Press Club and sponsored by Accuracy in Media (AIM).  Although Grose was not scheduled to speak, AIM's Roger Aronoff invited him to the podium, and he held forth for about ten minutes.

"I am absolutely convinced there was a cover-up," Grose told the audience.  That said, even Hillary Clinton would be hard pressed to call him a conspiracy theorist.  An applied physicist and a former air traffic controller, Grose knows as much about plane crashes as anyone in America.  If proof is needed, on the night of the TWA 800 disaster – July 17, 1996 – CNN called him in to its studio to provide expert on-air commentary.  This he did for the next six hours.

At the time, Grose had no reason to distrust the authorities.  In fact, during the next two years, he would do more than 170 interviews on the crash, all generally supportive of the investigation.  The deeper he looked, however, the more distrustful he became.  Now, he too is convinced that a missile or missiles destroyed TWA 800.

Although we had talked on the phone numerous times, Grose and I had never met.  After the AIM press conference, he casually noted he was having lunch with Hart the next day and, almost as an afterthought, asked if I would like to join them.  Sure, I said.  Why not?

Hart had no idea I would be there, but he accepted my presence gracefully.  Grose had a signed copy of my book with him and openly plugged it.  For my part, I talked about this and that, trying to establish some sort of bond with Hart and convince him of my sanity.

One point of common interest did emerge.  Hart mentioned he had served on the board from 1990 to 1993 before being replaced by Jim Hall.  "That was you?" I said.  "I wrote about that."  I remembered a good part of what I had written, specifically the quote by a Washington Post columnist who described Hall as "a politically connected white male Democrat whose only transportation experience apparently is a driver's license."  Hart laughed.  He told me he cut that column out and saved it.

Hart is a licensed pilot with a masters degree from Princeton in aerospace engineering and a law degree from Harvard.  That Clinton would replace a uniquely qualified African-American, and an admitted Democrat at that, with an inexperienced political hack shows how much stock the Clintons put in unquestioning loyalty.

A year after his appointment, Clinton appointed the feckless Hall chairman.  A year later, he named two more political operatives to the board.  For the first time since its creation, this purposely "independent" investigative agency was no longer independent.  In the TWA 800 investigation, the Clinton appointees would justify their selection.

As I promised, I sent Hart a copy of TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy and a quick outline of its contents.  I emphasized the undeniable role the CIA played in subverting the investigation, a role Hart himself may have been unaware of.

I heard nothing back from Hart, but two weeks after our lunch, Grose did hear from NTSB's General Counsel David Tochen.  Tochen wrote that "a member of the public" saw Grose at the AIM conference and claimed he "wore NTSB clothing, etc."  Tochen then rebuked Grose, reminding him that it was inappropriate "to create the appearance of holding himself/herself out, as a current agency official or employee."

Grose thought the email too "demeaning and unprofessional" to deserve a reply, but he did not discourage me from following up. I checked the video and replied to Tochen.  "As you can see," I wrote on July 31, "[Grose] was not wearing any NTSB gear, nor did he suggest that he in any way was speaking on behalf of the NTSB."  I questioned too which "member of the public" dropped a dime on Grose.

"In the month since my book has come out," I continued, "I hear on a daily basis from pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers, mechanics, NTSB employees, and FBI agents – many of whom worked the investigation – that are deeply disturbed that the NTSB will not even contemplate reopening a case that, to say the least, was conspicuously misdirected. I have not heard, however, from any of the CIA analysts. That is a shame, as they were the ones most responsible for subverting the investigation."

Tochen's response four days later shocked me.  He admitted to not having seen the video, and he apologized to Grose for contacting him without checking.  Then came the real kicker: "I have purchased your recent book. I have only finished reading the first five chapters and look forward to completing your book this weekend."

If true, Tochen knows everything I know about TWA 800 and then some.  He was among those to have met with the TWA 800 Project Team whose presentation focused more on the physical evidence and radar data than mine had.  From every perspective, the evidence was overwhelming that missiles destroyed TWA 800 and that at least one NTSB staffer, current managing director David Mayer, conspired with the CIA to conceal this fact.

In his correspondence with Tochen, physicist Tom Stalcup, the organizer of the TWA 800 Project, made the case repeatedly that Mayer's subordinates had been assigned to review his team's petition to reopen the case.  This he called "an untenable conflict of interest," given that they were being asked to assess their "superior's documented malfeasance."  Hart missed most of this correspondence.  He joined the board just before its final rejection of the TWA 800 Project Team appeal in June 2014.

I have waited nearly two months to speak about our lunch to give Hart a chance to respond.  He has not.  Other than the email from Tochen, all that I have heard from the NTSB during this period was a one-star Amazon review of my book from former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz.  In the review, the ever classy Goelz compared me to both Joe McCarthy and Daffy Duck.

When the subject of TWA 800 emerges, the networks still turn to people like Goelz and Hall.  They have become the public face of the NTSB, which is one reason why the board has lost almost all credibility with the aviation community.

Someone needs to rescue the NTSB, and America for that matter.  That so flagrant an injustice has been allowed to stand for twenty years tells us much too much the state of the nation today.

Mr. Hart, it is time to step up.

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